Francis’ visit to Holy Land will be “brief and intense”, as Paul VI’s was

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The Pope’s visit to the Holy Land (24-26 May) will be “very brief and very intense” as Paul VI’s visit was back in 1964. Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, confirmed this at a press conference, explaining that this was the reason why some parts of the trip which tend to be included in papal visits have been left out. Fr. Lombardi outlined some things which Francis and Paul VI’s visits have in common. Starting with the duration of the visit: 3 days.

The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, was the first to invite the Pope to Jordan, Palestine and Israel, the Vatican spokesman said. He started talking to him about a potential trip to the Holy Land from the day of the inauguration of his pontificate. The trip would commemorate the 50th anniversary of Paul VI’s meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras.”

Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew shared four key moments during that visit 50 years ago: the first private meeting scheduled for Sunday 25 in the Apostolic delegation building in Jerusalem (this is separate from the Holy See’s Nunciature in Tel Aviv), will take place in the “same place and the same room” in which Paul VI met the Orthodox Patriarch, Fr. Lombardi said. After the private meeting and after the exchange of gifts, the two will sign a “joint declaration”. The Pope and Bartholomew will then go separately to the Holy Sepulchre, for an” ecumenical meeting” during which they will commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus and will recite the “Our Father” together. “A moment of common prayer in a holy place in Jerusalem, particularly in the Holy Sepulchre, is something that has never happened before,” the Vatican spokesman said. Not even Athenagoras and Paul VI held a “public moment of common prayer.”

Francis and Bartholomew will drive to the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, in the same car – this will be the third moment they share. Here they will dine with patriarchs, bishops and the papal entourage. Their fourth and last encounter will take place on Monday, when the Pope will visit the Orthodox Church’s “primus inter pares”, in the building opposite the Orthodox Church of Viri Galilaei on the Mount of Olives. He will then take his leave.

The Pope is going to have a packed agenda on this visit: fourteen speeches, including the Sunday Regina Coeli, three States, a lot of domestic moving about and meetings with all respective authorities. The Pope will be speaking in Italian throughout the trip.

The Pope will not be using the Popemobile or a bulletproof car to get around, but “a normal car or an open-top jeep”. The jeep will be used to greet faithful at the Saturday afternoon mass at the International Stadium in Amman (Jordan) and on Sunday, before the mass in Manger Square in Bethlehem (Palestine).

Because the agenda is so packed, some parts of the trip that are usually included in papal visits will be left out. For instance, there will be no official meeting with representatives of other religions. Members of the papal delegation will include: the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the three cardinals in charge of Eastern Churches, Leonardo Sandri, of ecumenism, Kurt Koch and of interreligious dialogue, Jean-Louis Tauran, the rector of Buenos Aires' Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, Abraham Skorka and the former secretary general of the Islamic Center of the Argentine Republic. There will also be no farewell speeches when the Pope leaves each of the three airports he will be landing in.

Will Francis speak to journalists on the return flight as he did on the way back from Rio de Janeiro last summer? “I think we can expect him to greet journalists. Then, if at the end of the three busy day, at 9 pm, he has the strength or the desire to have a conversation it will be a miracle I should think … but he will certainly be his usual gentle and attentive self.”

Fr. Lombardi summed up the legs of the Pope’s trip. Interestingly, the Pope will not be celebrating any open air masses in Israel, only at the Amman stadium on Saturday 24 and in Bethlehem’s Manger Square on Sunday 25. Francis will celebrate a mass in the Cenacle on Monday 26. No public mass will be celebrated in Jerusalem (Benedict XVI, for instance, did celebrate one in Josafat Valley in 2009) or in Galilee.

Fr. Lombardi explained that Francis intended this trip to be a commemoration of Paul VI’s visit which also lasted three days. This is why he has left out Galilee, which John Paul II and Benedict XVI did visit, and where there are many Christians. In general, he said, “there are so many requests made on all the Pope’s visits but we can’t do everything.”

On Monday morning the Pope will also be going to Mount Herzl lay some flowers at the grave of the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl. His predecessors did not “because in the past this was not part of the ceremonial.”

When asked whether there were concerns about the recent acts of vandalism against Christian sites, Fr. Lombardi said the Holy See “condemned” these as does “everyone, including the Israeli authorities.” “The hope is that the visit will take place in a climate of calm: we have no reason to doubt this,” he added.

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